If you are reading this, it is probably safe to assume you live a connected life. You may have found this post through Twitter or Facebook. More than likely, you are reading this on the mobile phone that is always within arm’s reach. The ubiquity of digital devices and platforms makes it easy to take “24/7 Connectivity” for granted. Yet sixty years ago, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched Sister Cities International to “promote peace through mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation — one individual, one community at a time,” the idea of connection between two entities as geographically, socially, economically, and politically different as, say, Seattle and Tokyo, was something few had conceived as possible, let alone necessary for fostering world stability and ending conflict.
At PeaceTech Lab, we take a keen interest in cities, both for their tendency to become centers of conflict and, more importantly, their potential to be vanguards of peace. Indeed, at a 2014 Roundtable on Technology, Science & Peacebuilding, cities and urban planning made up a central topic of conversation, with participants eager to enlist cities as allies in peacebuilding.
This eagerness stems from the reality of the changing cityscape: by 2050 nearly two-thirds of the world’s 9.5 billion people will be urban dwellers. In not-too-distant 2030, 41 cities in the global South will exceed 10 million people — the threshold for a “mega-city.” Delhi, Shanghai, and Tokyo will house populations of 30 million people. This trend toward urbanization results in “wealthier, more informed, better networked citizenries,” yet also carries with it the potential for “local issues quickly becoming global ones, and vice versa ” (Cabral et al, “Diplomacy for a Diffuse World,” 2014).
In his book “Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization,” Parag Khanna elaborates on the increasing social and political importance of cities by declaring “Connectivity is Destiny.” And although he was referring to global transportation, communications, and energy infrastructure, one need look no further than the success of Sister Cities International’s 570 member communities and 2,300 partnerships in 150 countries to understand that cities not only crave connectivity, but are actively working to create greater networks of support and understanding.
Thus, as we look to the next 60 years of building further “trust networks,” the greatest question we can ask ourselves, and indeed the one we at PeaceTech Lab believe will be crucial to fostering a more peaceful, stable world, is:
“What can relationships between our cities teach us about strengthening relationships within our cities?”
The ongoing refugee crisis offers an urgent and relevant test case. As the greatest mass movement of people in world history unfolds, cities in Europe, the Middle East, and even the United States are faced with the challenge of supporting larger, more diverse populations than ever before. In these times of financial and social strain, knowledge-sharing between Sister Cities serves as an important resource for citizens and officials alike. Take the example of Chicago, which recently held a fundraiser for Hamburg, a city that saw the arrival of 20,000 refugees in 2015. Or Fort Worth, TX, which hosted a community dialogue on the efforts of Sister Cities in Germany, Hungary, and Italy to welcome and integrate refugees, and used this as a platform from which to talk about Fort Worth’s own resettlement process.
This kind of international cooperation is paving the way for smarter, more resilient cities, especially when layered with advances in Big Data and technology. In Sweden, for example, the use of Qlik Technologies analytics have enabled the Swedish government to predict and respond to the rise in asylum seekers, coordinating everything from additional bus routes to extra staffing at relief agencies. The Swedish government’s commitment to open data means these types of successful interventions can be shared with a global network at a speed and scale unimaginable six decades ago, accelerating progress toward peaceful solutions involving all of society.
“As we’ve seen time and again in the years since Sister Cities International was founded, governments (and even countries) come and go, but cities and their people remain.” To add to Sister Cities International CEO & President Mary Kane’s quote: technologies and their applications for improving lives may come and go, but the impulse and desire for human connectivity remains. And as organizations working together to promote peace, that should give us all a reason to celebrate!
PeaceTech Lab works at the intersection of technology, media, and data to accelerate the application of new solutions to age-old drivers of conflict. Learn more at www.peacetechlab.org or by following us on Facebook and Twitter @PeaceTechLab.